High rise, high hopes
outlines how the effects of urban deprivation can be overcome
IN large conurbations teachers swim strongly against a tide which at worst is head on and at best contains tricky cross-
currents. In such challenging circumstances, while there are many capable and well-supported children entering school, they are often in the minority.
Other children, equally capable, bring in their bags the trappings of a social environment which is sometimes dislocated by crime, drugs and debt. To them, life is loosely coupled and violence is never far away.
But the "future makers" - and that is what teachers are - see the other side of the coin. They see the rich multicultural population, respect the pupils' different cultures and provide an example of energetic learning which many children begin to copy as they suspend their own disbelief and start to pride themselves on what they achieve. Bilingualism becomes not a problem but a banker for widening their future horizons.
When that happens the tide is turning and the culture becomes one of assured success. When you witness that, as have the education commissioners called in recently by the struggling London borough of Islington - and as I have in Birmingham - it takes your breath away.
Schools can and do make a difference. This is the first of two simple truths which struck the Islington education commissioners as we were compiling our report, One hundred per cent of our future. But, while much can be achieved by schools in isolation, it is within the education service's competence to multiply their success.
Our second, interrelated "truth" was that unless a whole range of other factors - for example, housing, health and economic regeneration - are tackled simultaneously, we shall never finally crack the cycle of deprivation.
Islington's appointment of a deputy chief executive, who combines the post with the borough-wide leadership role for education, offers a pointer to how local government can and should realise its continuing leadership role.
But it will require local financial freedom, too, if the reports published by the Government's social exclusion unit, which call for joined-up solutions to tackle disadvantage, are not to gather dust in the offices of bureaucrats.
Within the education service's own remit, we identified five key areas for attention: leadership; behaviour; information and communications technology; staff recruitment and retention; and post-primary education.
Among the more radical of our recommendatios, two have an impact across all challenging urban environments. The first relates to teacher supply, retention and development. Islington is getting by, like many areas in inner London, with teachers visiting for a year or two from overseas: they are a good, but not a reliable, source. Without them many inner-city schools would not function.
So our suggestions for free travel passes and a "student loan debt holiday" for young graduates are not borne out of panic, but of a serious realisation of this chronic problem. Recruiting at senior level is no easier: so we made suggestions for sabbaticals and other career enhancements.
Our second sine qua non concerns secondary schools. In every large conurbation there are schools now cruelly exposed by the Office for Standards in Education, league tables, parental choice and occasional ministerial statements. These schools have been unable, save for a short period, to establish and sustain an achievement culture.
We suggest a different model involving a collegiate framework - or academic council as we call it - where groups of schools form a partnership with a college and university to assure ambitious parents that at 11 their youngsters are on an assured journey leading to a successful well-paid job or university study.
Among our suggestions for the collegiate council are an accelerated foundation year starting in July of Year 6 with a focus on the core subjects and two learning pathways at 14. One leads to at least three Cs in GCSE English, maths and science, plus GNVQ success, the other the familiar five or more A* to C grades. Both have an ingredient of early-accredited success and so ensure breadth by achievements in arts and sport.
Most important, both are dependent on parents supporting pupil attendance at 95 per cent, individual enrichment opportunities and continued membership of the same school.
We suggest the vital importance of taking full advantage of technologies for learning, but the commission sought to widen the debate about inner-city achievement which has been generated by the Government's education action zones and Excellence in Cities programme.
These now deserve a coherent framework for action. Otherwise, all those heroic efforts of school staff will still make a difference to individuals, as always, but not to the extent that they and their pupils deserve. We have it in our grasp to do better.
Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, chaired the Islington education commission. The report "One Hundred Per Cent Our Future" is available from Islington council.